Editorial: Following the numbers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Given the surge in enrollment at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College over the past few years, a drop in growth here and at other colleges around the state was probably inevitable. But as college and legislative leaders watch enrollment figures going forward, they should pay close attention to the issue of access and whether higher tuition and reduced financial aid are restricting opportunities for potential students. While colleges have had to cut costs, it will be a losing proposition if that cuts off students who can no longer obtain the training to become more productive members of society.
RCCCís projected enrollment decline of about 8 percent is higher than earlier forecasts and is part of a larger trend affecting community colleges across the country. In California, where the community college system has seen an overall enrollment drop of more than 5 percent, Chancellor Thomas Nussbaum might have been speaking for community college leaders nationwide when he said, ěThis is not good news … Access to the community college system is absolutely essential to keep California working.î
The same could be said of North Carolinaís system, which has been described as an ěemergency roomî for unemployed workers in the wake of manufacturing shutdowns that rocked the stateís economy. Retraining those workers became Job No. 1 for RCCC and other community colleges as they expanded course offerings, moving into new fields such as biotechnology and green energy. That produced sizzling enrollment growth of more than 50 percent over a four-year period, requiring expanded space on campus ó space that will still be put to good use, considering that enrollment remains significantly higher than a few years back.
While state and federal cutbacks and other economic factors affect the affordability of higher education, itís too early to say whatís driving these decreases. But if theyíre a harbinger of longer term declines, thatís a sign of trouble. Declining enrollment translates into lower state allotments, which can make it harder for colleges to provide the course offerings that might attract more students, resulting in more enrollment declines. With legislators itchy to merge some smaller community colleges, enrollment drops could speed that process, making higher education a more distant prospect for some potential students.
Meanwhile, some businesses report they canít find qualified workers for skilled positions in health care, biotechnology, green energy and other vocational areas. Community colleges provide vital training for the workforce of the future, offering some students a bridge to a new career and others a bridge to a four-year degree. Letís hope these enrollment numbers are a temporary adjustment and not a sign that bridge is breaking down.